Now that the Irish have officially ended their football season by declining the bowl bids sent their way (Detroit and DC just weren’t appealing enough winter vacation spots for JC), it’s time to turn our attention to Irish basketball. Mikey did a nice little preview of his Xavier Musketeers where he broke down his boys and their schedule…but I shall not be outdone.
To ensure this I have enlisted the help of former O’Neill Hall residents and Irish basketball stars Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers to preview the 2009-2010 squad. This season there will be three younger guys—Ben Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis, and Carleton Scott—that we’ll be relying pretty heavily on and frankly nobody has really seen them in any sort of extended action prior to this season. Kyle and Ryan practiced and played with all three of them last year so I figured they’d be able to provide some interesting and unique insight. They graciously agreed to contribute.
The Starting Lineup
G- TORY JACKSON (Senior)
’08-’09 Stats: 10.6 PPG, 4.9 APG, 4.4 RPG, 35.8% 3PT
Strengths: Great ball-handler…Solid on-the-ball defender with quick hands…One of the best rebounding guards in the country…Can create off the dribble
Weaknesses: Not an outside shooting threat (35.8% last year)…Poor free throw shooter (63.8% last year)…Has occasional game where he almost totally disappears
The Skinny: Jackson is an old-school, throwback point guard in the sense that normally he’s looking to set the table rather than fill it up on his own. He’s been an extremely likeable player over the course of his career because of his scrappiness—once a game without fail he emerges from the block with a rebound he had no business getting—and his propensity to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Every once and awhile a switch goes off and he can take over a game with his ability to penetrate (see: ’07 Big East tourney against Georgetown), but that’s not a frequent occurrence. At the same time there are games where he’ll just drop off the map (see: ’09 Pitt game). Smoothing out the highs and lows will be key to ND’s ultimate success.
What We Need from Tory: Tory has to improve his free throw shooting and become a consistent threat when left open behind the arc to at the very least keep the defense honest. This is his fourth season at the helm and he needs to protect the ball and keep turnovers at a minimum. We need him to shoot right around 40% from 3PT range, get his assist-to-turnover ratio close to 5-1, and somehow will the ball into the basket from the foul line down the stretch of games.
G- BEN HANSBROUGH (RS – Junior)
’07-’08 Stats (at Miss St) : 10.5 PPG, 2.6 APG, 3.8 RPG, 35.8% 3PT
McAlarney’s analysis of Ben Hansbrough:
“Hansbrough is a Hansbrough. He is as tough as they come and plays extremely hard. He has great strength attacking the basket, and while not a great shooter, can knock threes down on a consistent basis if not guarded. His improved passing ability, understanding of the game, and work ethic will make him one of the top guards in the Big East for the next two years. I can't say enough about him, as he was the only guy to ever match me in time spent alone in the gym.”
What We Need from Ben: We need him to be a consistent outside threat who can also get to the hoop and finish. One of our biggest flaws last year was an inability to get a big stop on defense when we needed it. Ben needs to step up and prove he can handle the speed and physicality of the Big East not just on offense but on defense. He’s not going to be a superstar like his brother, but we need him to comparable production to what Danny Miller provided when he transferred for the ’03 campaign (13.9 PPG, handful of rebounds and assists, good three-point threat).
G- TIM ABROMAITIS (RS – Sophomore)
’07-’08 Stats: 1.7 PPG, 0.3 APG, 1.0 RPG, 12.5% 3PT
Ayers’s analysis of Tim Abromaitis:
“Tim has had much deserved success so far this year and that is a result of his great work ethic. He has always known how to score the basketball, but it’s hard to translate that to the college level. Sitting out last year really helped him. He has all the intangibles to becoming an impact player because of his outside shooting touch and ability to finish around the basket. As long as his confidence is high, he is going to continue to have a great season as Big East games ensue.”
What We Need from Tim: The combination of the expected (graduating production) and the unexpected (Scott Martin’s injury) has left a gaping hole that needs to be filled in the statsheet. We need Tim to step up, seize a starting position for good, and provide some serious offensive firepower. Judging by his first start of the season—a 31 point outburst against UCF yesterday—he’s well on his way. If Tim can step up and be that consistent second scorer to complement Harangody it would be a huge step in the right direction.
F- TYRONE NASH (Junior)
’08-’09 Stats: 3.0 PPG, 0.7 APG, 3.6 RPG, 54.0% FT
Strengths: Big body who is willing to bang underneath…Tough defender…Has shown some athleticism, just needs to translate it on the offensive end
Weaknesses: Has yet to offer much on the offensive side of the ball thus far…Terrible free throw shooter (50.5% career to date)…Can be careless with the ball (averaging 1.6 turnovers in just 21 minutes per game this year)...Work ethic has been questioned in the past
The Skinny: Nash is exactly the tough, physical presence the Irish need to go along side Luke Harangody—something Luke Zeller wasn’t able to provide the last year. He’s athletic and in limited action last season showed he’s more than willing to mix it up down low. That being said, he’s still extremely raw offensively and with his extended playing time this season one can see why Brey was reluctant to have him out there too long last year. Harangody provides most of the offense down on the block so Nash will be called on to do the dirty work and clean up the table scraps when he has the chance. One of the big questions of this year will be whether he turns out to be Rick Cornett or Harold Swanagan. The latter is exactly what this team needs.
What We Need from Tyrone: Frankly expectations for his offensive output will remain low, but we really need him to step up on the boards. For how athletic and physical he is there’s no excuse to be averaging just four rebounds per game. We need him to be a force on the defensive side of the ball, keep his focus for more sustained lengths, and get his rebound average up to around five or six boards per game.
F- LUKE HARANGODY (Senior)
’08-’09 Stats: 23.3 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.1 APG, 45.9% FG
Strengths: Great scorer…One of the best free throwing shooting big men in the NCAA…Relentless rebounder
Weaknesses: Not a particularly good defender…Had trouble last year finding open shooters on the kickouts from the block…Has a tendency to force bad shots
The Skinny: Luke is one of the best players in Notre Dame history and if he continues on the pace he’s on he’ll rewrite a lot of the Irish record book. He’s a great scorer who has a soft touch and release around the basket. His never-ending motor has been well-documented and like Jackson he always wears his emotions on his sleeve. He really needs to work on his defensive game—too many times last year the big men of the Big East had huge games going up against him. This is probably the biggest step he needs to make in becoming a complete player. The other thing is that he seems to be falling in love with the three a bit (28 attempts through 9 games this year, 38 all of last season). He wanted to come back to refine his game for the NBA and he showed last year he’s capable of knocking down an open three, but we don’t need him hoisting up four or five a game (he was 0-for-6 in the loss to Northwestern). I don’t think he’ll start living out there like Zeller did last year (and Cornette did a few years back), but he needs to be careful in picking his spots (Rob Kurz did a great job of this two years ago).
What We Need from Luke: We need him to live up to his billing as an All-American. That means a slight increase on the offensive end and a huge increase on the defensive end. One of the biggest reasons he came back for his senior season was to refine his game and get ready for the NBA. The best way he can do that isn’t by proving he can shoot the three—it’s by proving he can be a force on defense as well as offense. We need Harangody to be the undisputed best player in the Big East, something that should be easier than last year with DeJuan Blair, Hasheem Thabeet, and Earl Clark all gone to the NBA.
The Missing Link
F – SCOTT MARTIN (Out for the Year)
This season could have a much higher ceiling if Purdue transfer Scott Martin didn’t go down with a devastating ACL injury in the preseason. He’s a bit of an unknown after sitting out last year, but he was a key contributor on a very good Purdue team as a freshman two years ago. Want to know how sick you should feel about losing him? Here’s what Kyle had to say about him:
“Scott is as talented a player as Notre Dame has had in recent years, the most talented I ever played with at ND. Being a lefty, his game reminds me of Chris Mullin. He is a pure scorer.”
Notre Dame basketball got exactly zero breaks in the year of 2009. Someone just turn the calendar already.
Contributors off the Bench
G – JONATHAN PEOPLES (Senior)
'08-'09 Stats: 3.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 34.0% 3PT
Strengths: Very familiar with the offensive system…Has experience in Big East play…Unselfish…Has a group of fans who yells “PARTY PEOPLES” every time he makes a three
Weaknesses: Not a good shooter (37.8% FG, 34.0% 3PT last year)…Not a great defender…Can’t be relied on to break a press like Jackson can
The Skinny: Peoples is an experienced player but he doesn’t bring a lot to the table in terms of production. He’s a selfless player who gets after it when he’s on the court, but to be blunt what three years have shown us is there’s limited upside in every aspect of his game. His experience in Big East play will be valuable because Brey will be comfortable handing over the reigns for short periods of time when the starters need a blow, but unless something drastically changes he isn’t going to contribute a lot in terms of stats.
What We Need from Jonathan: Peoples needs to be a reliable guy off the bench who can guide the ship when Tory and Hansbrough need a rest. Asking him to do anything more than spot duty is a dangerous road to go down in the high flying Big East. We need Peoples to give us 15-20 minutes a game and be able to chip in the occasional three when he’s left open behind the arc.
F – CARLETON SCOTT (RS – Sophomore)
'08-'09 Stats: 2.5 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.4 APG, 54.3% FG
Ayers's Analysis of Carleton Scott:
“Carleton Scott is a fun player to watch because of his high energy and athleticism. Offensively, he can stretch the defensive with his outside shot that extends to the three point arc. He can be a terror on the offensive boards because of his length and size. Coach Brey can play him at multiple positions, making him a versatile player on the defensive end at well. He will help the Irish with defensive rebounding and changing shots with his help side defense.”
What We Need from Carleton: Carleton needs to use the energy and athleticism that Ryan alluded to and translate that into production on the defensive side of the ball. He's already shown that he can make a significant contribution on the boards (11 in 22 minutes vs Kennesaw, 8 in 26 minutes vs Northwestern) which we'll absolutely need. If he can be counted on for 25-30 high energy minutes per game on defense, snatch seven or eight rebounds, and chip in seven or eight points it'll be a huge step in the right direction for this team. I have high hopes for Scott--he needs to make his presence felt early and often.
As always the Irish will have a steady dose of non-conference cupcakes (with the exception of UCLA…who is way down this year) before tackling another brutal Big East schedule at the end of December. Luckily since the Irish weren’t pegged to be in the top four of the league they were spared the suicidal schedule they faced last year. Still, this will be a challenging course to navigate back to the Big Dance to say the least.
The two highest rated opponents on the schedule are Villanova (AP #3) and West Virginia (AP #6). Let’s go to the two guys who faced these teams to get a feel for what it will take for ND to pull off the upset:
Ayers on Villanova:
“It is important for the Irish to take care of the ball because Nova prides itself on pressuring the basketball and creating turnovers. I would say move the ball well and get the defensive moving and then attack the paint. Defensively, it’s important for the Irish to keep Villanova’s guards in front of them and challenge all jump shots. Lastly, ND must rebound the ball. Nova is always active around the basket.”
McAlarney on West Virginia:
“West Virginia really shut us down in the Big East tourney last year. Their defensive scheme was to switch all screens. Their size across the board enabled them to pressure the ball, discourage post touches, and rebound from all angles. That really hurt us, and we couldn't figure it out until the 2nd half. I think the key for ND against WV is stops. Getting stops enables them to get out in transition. Playing against WV's half court defense is tough, so spreading the floor and moving the ball from sideline to sideline will help the Irish score.”
The Key to Getting Back to the Big Dance:
Mattare: Part of me wants to say start playing better defense, but really it comes down to the unproven guys stepping up. Abromaitis has already shown he could be the guy who provides the much needed scoring pop and Scott has shown flashes of his enormous potential. At the same time Nash has yet to prove he can be a legitimate, consistent contributor down low and Hansbrough cannot afford games like he had against Northwestern (1/10 from the field, 0/7 from 3 point range).
This is a thin team that will only run seven players deep. The margin for error is far lower this year because the team lacks the firepower from behind the arc it’s had the past seven or eight seasons (from Matt Carroll and David Graves to Chris Quinn and Colin Falls to McAlarney and Ayers). Without the normal battery of three-point gunners to lean on the Irish can’t afford a weak link if they want to be dancing in March.
McAlarney: The key to them getting to the dance is balance on both ends of the floor. Gody has developed into one of the best in college ball, but he can't carry the scoring and rebounding load alone. I don't expect him to because with Hansbrough waiting around a year to play, Nash chomping at the bit last season, young guys like Abromaitis and Scott hungry and motivated, and the most experienced PG around in Tory, they have the ability to do something special. There are no limitations if they come together and embrace their respective roles.
Winning in college basketball comes down to who executes, gets stops, and stays in character when going through adversity. Being led by a few veterans, I'm confident my boys will take care of business.
Ayers: In order for Notre Dame to put themselves in a position to be picked as one of the 65 teams in the NCAA tournament they need to continue to do what Coach Brey instills in them everyday: Play Together. Irish teams have won with their unselfishness and team play. If everyone does their job and stays aggressive they will be fine.
The seniors of this year’s team have been through the ups and downs of last years team and will continue to lead through any challenge. In addition, defense and rebounding are keys the Notre Dame winning basketball games. If they can control those things and stay confident anything can happen come March.
Your Pick for a Player Who May Surprise:
Mattare: Carleton Scott. He’s probably the best athletic specimen Notre Dame’s had on the roster since Russell Carter. Brey has a tendency to bring players like him along very slowly, but he’s got no choice but throw him into the fire and see what the kid can do this season. He’s still a bit raw, but at the very least his athleticism should allow him to make a significant contribution on defense and the boards while his offensive game catches up.
McAlarney: Since the only two players who have seen big time minutes are Tory and Luke, I think the talent and improvement of everyone on the squad will surprise not only ND fans but opponents as well.
Ayers: It's tough to say because I think on any given night someone is going to step up and play well. This team has a lot of experience and the core group of guys who log significant minutes have played together for two years now. This is an older group that can rely on each other and not just one player.
How far do the Irish ultimately go this season?
Mattare: I think they’ll be right on the bubble. It’s a big leap of faith to think that all the parts will come together and make an unexpected run like they did three years ago in the brutal Big East Conference. I just don’t believe they have the firepower they had in that ’06-’07 season even with Harangody morphing into an All-American. Here’s to hoping they prove me wrong.
McAlarney: Final Four. Go Irish.
Ayers: The Irish are as good as they want to be. They have the pieces to be a very successful team in the Big East. With an All-American anchoring the team, the other guys are going to be set up to have great seasons. Coach Brey will have his team ready for whatever task. Coach instills great confidence in his players and it’s hard to stop a confident Irish team.